Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Indian filmfests : new 'proposed policy - An open letter to the Minister

Following our sustained campaign against censorship, the Ministry of I & B set up a committee to examine the issue of censorship at film festivals and the National film awards. the committe members appointed vide an order dated Feb 2, 2005 included Shyam Benegal, Manmohan Shetty, Jabbar Patel, Asha Parekh, DVS Raju. The members from Delhi included SS Mehdi, Prof Dipankar Gupta, Mohd Amin, Rahul Roy and Afzal Amanullah (Jt secy, I & B).

Last month, a draft policy was presented to the Minister, apparently based on the Committee's recommendation. In a discussion with the Minister on Aug 26 in Delhi, I protested against the proposed policy as instead of liberalising censorship, it actually tightens control.
Anand Patwardhan and I have sent two separate protest letters to the Minister.

Please help the campaign against censorship by signing our petition
Sh Jaipal Reddy Sept 22, 2005
Minister for Information & Broadcasting
8, 30 January Marg, off Aurangzeb Road
New Delhi - 110001


I write this open letter to you with a strong sense of dismay concerning the tightening of censorship controls over independent film-making in the country. I am deeply perturbed about the proposed new policy concerning film festivals and the National Film Awards. Many of these new proposals are deeply shocking, especially since the committee itself was set up to liberalize the censorship regime vis-à-vis filmfests and the NFA. It has been brought to my attention that the new policy:

* Brings all film festivals under the purview of stronger censorship by defining a film festival eligible for exemptions from censorship as one which is either funded by the Government or is affiliated to FIAPF ( e.g., IFFI), i.e., effectively only ‘sarkari’ film festivals!

* Empowers the Ministry to deny exemptions to any film even in these festivals on several grounds – internal security, impact on bilateral relations with other countries, law and order etc. in contravention of well-known Supreme Court judgements on these issues!

* Retains the highly contentious requirement of a censor certificate for entry to National Film awards, despite a boycott by over 200 documentary film-makers for two years - in 2004 and 2005!

Your officials have also proposed denial of exemption to any film that “affects human sensibilities”. Many of us make films in the hope of affecting these very human sensibilities. Under the ‘new policy’, any film can be ‘banned’ from film festivals on this count alone!

I, like most within the independent film-making community, fail to understand why the UPA government is introducing such totalitarian policies. Though I’m sure you are already aware of the background, but I’d like to underscore the norm/convention by citing the example of MIFF, organized by Films Division, a part of your Ministry. Ever since its inception in 1990, MIFF has been a censorship-free space. The Ministry has never intervened to either reject or include any film in the MIFF line up on any grounds whatsoever. The NDA government tried to make censor certification mandatory for all Indian films participating in MIFF 2004, a move that led to widespread protests within the Indian film-making community as well as a proposed boycott by international film-makers and film festival delegates! Your predecessor, from the BJP, unilaterally withdrew this controversial regulation, though later there was ‘informal’ censorship in selections.

With the new proposed measures, the UPA government is codifying as policy what the NDA was unable to do – introduce state control in the few rapidly-shrinking spaces in which artists can meet and share ideas. Why is the government afraid of letting film-makers interact and discuss their films in a forum like a film festival, which, anyway, is open only to film festival delegates and not to general public. Sir, if controversial ideas can not be debated even in ‘enclosed spaces’, if even the intelligentsia must seek sanction from state-appointed thought police before sharing their work and ideas, the question that begs to be asked is – under the benign guise of protecting artists from bad thoughts, is the actual agenda a fascist control of all arts? Such actions by your Ministry also make a mockery of the UPA’s stated commitment to Right to Information!

Many of us believe that the main censorship law – the Cinematograph ACT of 1952 itself is archaic and needs a thorough review, especially in light of rapid changes in the last decade – the spread of TV channels and internet have led to a greater ‘visual literacy’; cinematic images no longer need to be treated as extra-potent images capable of influencing gullible minds and hence subject to a more stringent regulation, which for decades has been the underlying assumption behind the administration and interpretation of the Cinematograph Act both by CBFC and the courts. I have been arguing that the law needs to be liberalized even for general public exhibition; instead even the erstwhile censorship-free spaces like film festivals are being taken away!

Chief Justice Hidayatullah once observed – “The standards that we set out for our censors must make a substantial allowance in favour of freedom thus leaving a vast area for creative art to interpret life and society with some of its foibles along with what is good.” In another case - Rangarajan vs P Jagjivan Ram and others, the Court observed – “…freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threat of demonstration and processions or threats of violence. That would tantamount to negation of the rule of law and a surrender to blackmail and intimidation. It is the duty of the State to protect the freedom of expression since it is a liberty guaranteed against the State. The State cannot plead its inability to handle the hostile audience problem. It is its obligatory duty to prevent it and protect the freedom of expression.” Yet your government proposes to use “law and order” as a ground to ‘ban’ a film, that too from a film festival!

Sir, how will internal security be compromised or relations with foreign countries be affected if a film is merely screened at a film festival? Is a bureaucrat’s perception of a threat an adequate reason? To quote the Supreme Court again – “The anticipated danger should not be remote, conjectural or far-fetched. It should have proximate and direct nexus with the expression. The expression of thought should be intrinsically dangerous to the public interest. In other words, the expression should be inseparably locked up with the action contemplated like the equivalent of a "spark in a power keg"….”. Sir, I am hard pressed to recall an incident from the past where film festival delegates emerged from a cinema hall and indulged in rioting, arson and killings of the kind we have grown to associate with political parties. I assume that your Ministry does not look at film-makers, critics, film students and film journalists as people unable to think for themselves, capable of being led astray by a film. Why, then, is your Ministry keen to tighten censorship in film festivals? Perhaps the new proposals are a result of bureaucratic zeal and at the very least, need to be re-examined. I enclose my suggestions on censorship exemption for film festivals, most of which. were discussed with you last month after you asked me to come to Delhi for a meeting.

Another major issue we discussed was your commitment to allow dating devices other than the censor certificate in order to determine the eligibility of any film for the National film awards. I enclose my letter of July 14 concerning the withdrawal of my writ petition from the Hon’ble High Court of Delhi in view of your instructions to the Ministry officials. Yet, shockingly, I hear that your own instructions are being flouted by the very same officials in the new guidelines for the NFA! As I had pointed – “Policy-making is primarily a political function while its implementation is the responsibility of the bureaucracy. As the political head is ultimately accountable to the people, it is rightly he who sets the tone and tenor of policies. Bureaucratic obduracy can not and should not pass off as sagacious advice, especially when it seems to either subvert or stall policy-making.” Yet, by accepting the advice of your bureaucracy to retain censorship at National film awards, you will yourself be subverting your own stated policy. Perhaps this is an oversight; I urge you to resolve the issue that has deeply exercised the independent film-making community and has led to a boycott of NFA by an overwhelming majority of independent film-makers in India for two years!

Apparently, your officials attribute the new proposals to the committee set up in early 2005 to examine these issues. Sir, briefly, I’d like to direct your attention to the nature, composition and workings of the committee:

The “final recommendations” presented by your officials last month had not been ratified by the committee members! In fact, even the minutes of the last meeting were not circulated to them. Yet, despite their being in the dark, their ‘recommendations’ were presented to you as a formal policy draft!

The committee held all its meetings in Delhi. Most of the film industry representatives (specifically Mr Shyam Benegal and Mr Manmohan Shetty) did not attend any meeting. Though it might have inconvenienced your officials to hold at least a meeting or two in Mumbai, the film-making capital of India, it would have allowed the film-makers and various trade associations to interact with the committee.

Curiously, most film festival directors/ curators and various trade bodies like IDPA and Hindi/Tamil film industry associations were kept away from this committee.

None of the film-makers who have directly experienced censorship recently were invited to the committee. These could have included Govind Nihalani (who had to cut words like Ayodhya and Gujarat from Dev at the CBFC’s insistence) and Anand Patwardhan (whose name was specifically suggested to the Ministry but did not figure in the list of ‘invitees’).

Further, organizers of filmfests that have suffered both legal and extra legal censorship recently were not even contacted! These include the Bangalore-based Freedom filmfest (Hindu Jagran Manch-affiliated members of the regional censor board disrupted screenings on July 29, 2004, Sh PP Nair from your Ministry asked the Regional officer, CBFC to lodge police complaints against the film-makers and festival organisers!), Vikalp (organized in Mumbai as a protest against censorship at MIFF 2004) and Prakriti Foundation (faced police trouble in Chennai in 2004) etc.

Many within the film-making community sense a regressive pattern in several actions by your officials ever since the UPA government took over from NDA. Whether it is the issue of police intervention in film festivals or the initial denial of censor certificates to films dealing with politics of hate/ communalism (Parzania, Final Solution, Dev etc) or the appointment of an independent festival Director for MIFF or even the composition of CBFC panels, the UPA government seems to be as committed to maintaining a draconian stranglehold as its predecessor. Film-makers like me facing harassment by CBFC are made to waste valuable time and energy and when finally, we are accorded our legal due, it is touted as a ‘favour’ and trumpeted as a testimony to the secular character of this government.

Sir, I hope that you are as perturbed about this pattern as most of us. I urge you to intervene and remove the shadow of censorship from filmfests and the NFA. I further request you to order a comprehensive review of the Cinematograph Act itself.

Rakesh Sharma

Suggestions on exemption of film festivals from censorship

1. Requests for exemptions under section 9 of the Cinematograph Act to the Ministry would be entertained in respect of international and national film festivals. Such exemptions will be provided by the Ministry within 7 working days upon receipt of requests.
2. An international film festival would mean a film festival screening a mix of Indian and international films while a National film festival shall mean a film festival screening only Indian films. Such festivals maybe organized by any film festival registered with FIAPF and/ or the Directorate of film festivals, any registered film society, film-makers’ collectives, media schools, registered NGOs and educational institutions.
3. The viewership in these festivals would be confined only to delegates as defined in the recommendations of the committee – “film-makers, students, critics, film theorists, film lovers, those associated with production/ business of films, duly registered members of the press and festival jury”
4. The request for exemption would contain recommendations of a duly constituted Preview Committee of the festival, synopsis of each film with details like country of origin, year, format etc, details of the screening venues and dates of screenings. As is the norm with exemptions provided to Federation of Film Societies of India, the exemption provided in respect of a film will be valid for a period of 10 years for the purposes of a film festival screening as this would help avoid duplication since the same film maybe programmed by more than one film festival.
5. The Ministry shall not ordinarily deny exemption from censorship to any film festival. If it does so in the rarest of rare circumstances, it must cite in writing to the film festival organizers those specific portions of the film that attract such an action by the Ministry. Further, the denial of exemption must be ratified within 7 working days by a panel comprising Secretary I & B or his nominee, independent experts drawn from a pool of national and international award-winning film-makers, film critics from national publications and representatives from Federation of Film Societies (FFSI). This panel shall also function as the grievance redressal committee in respect of any representations concerning denial of exemptions to film festival organizers.
6. In view of the Government of India’s commitment to the recently enacted Right to Information, a formal recommendation by Sh Shyam Benegal to relax censor certification requirement for documentaries and the Ministry’s encouragement of attempts to popularize documentary films, all documentary film festivals should be exempted from any censorship for an initial period of 5 years, provided the festival organizers send a list of films to the Ministry alongwith details as outlined in clause 5 above at least 7 days in advance. Exemption will deemed to have been granted upon receipt of the list and details, unless otherwise specified in writing by the Ministry with details of reasons for suspension of the exemption. However, documentary films containing enactments and docudramas etc will be subjected to the same exemption procedure as feature films, narrative films and short fiction films.
7. Any clarifications or disputes pertaining to NFA and/or exemptions for filmfests shall be referred to the grievance redressal committee specified in clause 6.

Suggestions on new policy for National Film Awards

To continue with the present system followed for receiving entries for the National Film Awards – of using the censor certificate as a dating device, i.e., to ascertain the date of completion in order to determine the eligibility of the film as having been produced in the previous calendar year.

Additionally, in view of the formal recommendation by the 52nd NFA jury (non-feature), representations made directly to the Ministry by several film-makers and trade associations like IDPA vis-à-vis the dating devices used for the 52nd National Film Awards and the Ministry’s categorical assurance that led to the withdrawal of the writ petition filed by Sh Rakesh Sharma in July 2005 to incorporate dating devices other than the censor certificate, it has been decided that w.e.f 53rd National Film Awards, the following may also be used as dating devices:

The date of World/ International premiere of a film at major international film festivals, especially those affiliated with FIAPF (International Film Producers’ Association).

The date of Indian premiere at an Indian film festival registered with the Directorate of film festivals only if it precedes the international/ world premiere of the film.

The date of registration of the film with NFDC and/ or the National Film Archives. A separate order should be issued in this respect enabling film-makers to deposit DVD copies of their films with the Archives, especially since this would help build a valuable national resource in the form of an exhaustive archive of Indian films at no substantial or extra cost to the Government of India. A catalogue number will be assigned by NFDC/ National Film Archives for copyright purposes as well as registration of completed film and/ or film titles.

Further, as jury screenings do not constitute a public screening as defined under the Cinematograph Act, no censor certificate should be required for such screenings. However, if the Directorate of Film festivals organizes any public screenings of award-winning films, it would be the responsibility of the film-maker to expeditiously obtain a censor certificate and furnish the same to DFF.


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